Just The Tip

Tipping has a sordid past, and it's getting out of control. Here's why the American culture of gratuity has become what it is today.

Just The Tip

We may live in a polarized society, but if there's one thing we can all agree on, it is that tipping is getting out of control. A penny saved may be a penny earned, but adding one more red cent in semi-automated gratuity may force me to go door to door selling candy bars out of a box just to pay off a scone.

I've never made my living on gratuity, so the hard-working class that does will have to afford me some grace while I make my point, if you can afford it at all. For me, my qualifications come from decades of giving tips (I call it marketing "consulting" to make it sound better). On the receiving end, I enjoy the occasional gifts that I find hitting my Stripe account from the likes of viewers like you who opt to offer their thanks with little more than a link at the end of an email offering them the opportunity. But tipping isn't a prerequisite for good customer service here at The Lorem Ipsum. If you don't drop anything in the bucket, I promise you'll never get a dirty look; but you, like every reader, will still get a dirty email. Those are for everyone (by that, I am referring to emails like this issue of The Weekly had the word f@rt in it. But don't worry. I keep it PG – the 80s version – so feel free to forward this email to your kids).

Anyway, tipping is bullshit. Especially when it's expected. When it's not, it's a kind gesture, but your average kind gesture can devolve into price gouging in moments. I hate nothing more than an optional donation when it's required. When a well-dressed gentleman tries to take my luggage up to my room, I go out of my way to tell him to keep his mitts off my goods because I don't want to get dirty looks when I don't give him between one and two dollars per parcel for doing something I'd rather do myself (I could use the exercise).

Whether tipping culture says something about the tipper or the tipped is unclear, but I find it unlikely that anyone would ever declare that they'd like to gamble on making ends meet literally on a day-to-day basis, so we'll call it a systemic problem. And the system has outgrown itself.

Here are some of the ways that tipping is getting out of hand.

Food delivery apps.

The common understanding is that a tip is an amount to be determined based on the quality of service. That's why tips often land on top of the bill after the service has been rendered, but delivery apps have turned it upside down. Perhaps a little extra on top, and you'll stay a minute to ask me how my kids are doing?

With delivery being one of the most expensive ways to eat cold food, it would only be a guess that the delivery fee would pay for the delivery. If it does, ideally, it would. Word on the streets says that goes to the app developers.

When I order my e-commerce burritos, I usually select a dollar amount that is somewhere between "Esau giving Jacob his birthright for a bowl of beans" and "Scrooge flipping a shilling to the boy outside his window to fetch him the prize turkey." Basically, 1-3 dollars. Or for 65 cents, I can pick it up on my own, but who has time to drive around for food when it takes this long for a website to load?

Prom Dresses.

Teenage daughters have always been expensive, but it gets worse when the touch screen is flipped your way. Lately, I've heard numerous reports that upon checkout, you'll be prompted to tip when buying a $400 dress for your daughter, just in case you wanted it to be more expensive.

This is the question I have. Is it reasonable to expect me to pay extra for letting me take more than three things into the dressing room? Thanks for the small water bottles, but we'll take our chances with the zipper.

If you want a tip, it's to keep your little brother away from my daughter. Unless he's got a good job, then okay, fine, but tell him to keep his eyes straight ahead.

Some Guy in A Bathroom

If it wasn't bad enough that I had to ask for directions to the bathroom and then be escorted by a seemingly very important person, who I know is judging me, now I have a fee associated with an act of survival. I'm just going about my business (or trying to), and then I discover that I'm on the toll road of bathrooms, and I don't have any cash. My empty wallet won't stop the call of nature either, so naturally, I do what I gotta do. Obviously, I would try to walk out with wet hands rather than rebuff the kindly gentleman of his bathroom bounty, but he was too quick with the towels, so I made sure I got my money's worth and grabbed an extra handful of mints. I used the napkin to write him an IOU (had to borrow his pen too).

Literally Everything on Vacation

If it happens at a hotel or near one, expect to be expected to tip. The takeout pizza by the slice, the barista handing you a drip coffee, the driver charging you by the mile, the mandatory valet putting your car 30 feet away in a parking garage, the concierge who literally tells everyone the exact same six restaurants all day long, and if you're a power user, will store your luggage in the back room for an afternoon. It never ends. If you budget for vacation, add 20% in singles to make sure you ready for anything.

The truth is the point-of-sale software has put tipping on overdrive. The app companies make tipping a mandatory feature of the checkout process simply to gross up the charges – charges that the app companies receive a portion of through processing fees. No sooner than you can finish your order for a six-dollar latte, the price climbs 20% because if you hit the custom tip button, you're destined to get a mug shot on the wall to warn future baristas. It's not your fault they didn't account for labor costs in their pricing, but everyone in line will look at you like it is while you're typing in a lower number.

Why is it that the guy who changes your oil gets paid a living wage, but the person selling you a luxury-priced steak at a nice restaurant depends on your discretion to make a living?

Tipping and Slavery

Many good tippers wear their good tipping as a mark of their identity, but tipping well doesn't make someone a better person. It's merely a necessary part of a wicked system. Tipping has a sordid past, not unlike the Europeans who imported the practice to America with their slaves.

It's popular to claim that tipping exists solely because of slavery, but it's far more complicated than that. There was no single event that brought tipping into our culture. Tipping exists for many reasons. The practice crept into our social expectations initially as bribes for extra goods or services or to supplement wages for underpaid servants – yes, some of them were slaves too. It came from confusion about the price of hotels when a meal was provided versus when it was not included. It was a thank you to the staff when you visited a nobleman's home. And lastly, it was the customary bribe to get alcohol during the Amercian prohibition.

Over time it has become a ubiquitous part of dining out, only to be followed by Uber driving and Tattoo artists. I only imagine lawyers are next. But slavery casts a shadow on us when optional tipping is a means of employment. It may not be the whole story, but slavery isn't off the hook. Slavery existed for a time because capitalists would find any legal means to maximize profit. At one point, slavery was legal. Today, however, slavery is only legal in the restaurant industry.

So to speak.

In many states, to work as a server, you'll be paid $2.13 per hour or roughly $85 per week. This is less than the minimum wage, which applies to all other vocations. It's legal, and you can leave anytime. But the industry as a whole has taken advantage of those who don't have a choice.

The problem is that there is a reverse incentive for employers in the restaurant industry to pay their employees a living wage. The law allows it, and it is customary. So they do.

As a result, an employee's income is related to things like the performance of the staff in the kitchen, the quality and price of the food, whether they are good-looking or charismatic, and lastly, the charity of the patron at the table. All the risk is on the employee. Because of this risk, this often keeps restaurant workers in a cycle of poverty. Some escape it, some work their way up to management, and some find themselves living hand to mouth, literally.

For the tipper, the assumption is that the tipped person does not make enough money, and it's up to the customer to decide if they will be, by kindly offering a little extra out of the goodness of their heart.

Businesses won't pay employees appropriately, even though they are often the lifeblood of their business if it's legal to do otherwise. But when it comes to tipping, some would say it's not optional, but it's simply part of the cost of the meal. If that is true, we should make it official.